I’m not white: Do I want the University to know? And does it matter?


As I input my personal details to enroll for study at the university, I am asked to input my ‘ethnicity’. What is my ethnicity? I bring up the list, and notice there is one option for “white”, whereas several for what I would call ethnic minorities – including myself, questionably a person of colour. I wondered why they want to know my race, what happens to my data, and whether these categories really help us. After all, is race even a thing in 2017?
The answer to that one is… yes and no.
HESA, the Higher Education Statistical Agency (who collect and analyse data from universities across the UK), are the people concerned with the ethnicity of student groups. The reason behind this is to provide the means to examine and study changes in representation of minority groups.
Universities are public bodies, meaning all staff must abide to the Equality Act 2010 and receive formal Equality & Diversity Training. However, many racial issues persist in higher education: ethnic segregation in university itself, and within university subject choices have been found by the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research.
Furthermore, UCAS data shows that white students are more likely to be accepted into universities than black, Asian and other ethnic minority (BEM) students of the same predicted grades. This is interesting when contrasted with data that all ethnic minority groups are statistically more likely to go to university than White British, as reported by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Taken together, these findings indicate that ethnic minorities are applying to university, but not getting in. However, even if at a macro-level we can still see many race issues, most public sectors feature not only people who care, but people committed to bringing about change.
At the University of Southampton, we have The Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Team, who are committed to improving equality and addressing discrimination through various professional services, including a 10 Year Plan to embed systems of equality in the university. Furthermore, they must disclose their work to the University Council and publish all their reports publicly.
One of their objectives includes the implementation of the Widening Participation Project, which involves outreach to schools found in communities with a history of non-attendance to higher education: communities more likely to include BEM families than the national average.
The staff at the university have an obligation to take any issue you feel relates to race seriously, and are prepared to take action regarding any form of discrimination, even if subtle and indirect.
Sadly, there is a severe shortage of BEM staff at the university. HESA showed that there are currently zero black academics in top academic roles at all British universities. Extending to Southampton and BEM generally, data from the University’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Team shows that BEM applicants are less successful at gaining academic promotions. The Team acknowledge that this needs to improve, with one of the specific reasons being to encourage BEM students to study, feel welcome and comfortable at the university.
So, did these people not get promoted due to their race? Perhaps not directly: I am aware that the university has strict policies in place to prevent discrimination of ‘protected characteristics’ in all job applications (including promotions). However, even if the white candidates were the ‘best for the job’, why is that? What explains the bias from the statistic?
The myth of meritocracy has been argued to be a racial microaggression: a statement that communicates (intentionally or unintentionally) either a hostility towards another’s racial or cultural identity, or (as in this case) discounts one’s race-related experiences. Even if we trust one institution, such as the university, to provide equal opportunities to all races, do we trust the schools people come from to provide the same respect and social network? Do we trust all the individuals in this institution to provide the same social opportunities, the same level of interest or respect?
The ethnic minorities I’m close with at the university can all tell me how they feel race has influenced their experience at university. Second language speakers who feel ignored, people who’ve felt alienated or stereotyped, and people who are confronted by those who still stand by colour blindness, a destructive denial of one’s race-related experiences. The social perception of race is so strong, it’s deeply unlikely not to affect our social and professional opportunities.
However, it is merely a social perception. It is not at all biologically (or ‘scientifically’) significant. When we define our own race, we are likely to look at our parents, and their ancestors, and determine from what ‘ethnic gene pool’ we descend. However, when we judge another’s ‘race’ (not advised: just ask them if you want to know about their perception of themselves or personal experiences), we are likely to base it on ‘race-related features’, like skin tone, body shape, or other factors.
However, genetic variation within ‘racial groups’ is far more significant than between racial groups. In other words, the number of genes that clearly vary between ‘racial groups’ is vastly less than the number of genes that already vary within any given race. Also, the features we use to classify race are likely to vary more within a ‘racial group’ than between two specific groups. Although I am half Moroccan, and people may determine that traits of mine (e.g. the size of my lips) indicate my heritage, you will find a higher percentage of ‘non-Moroccans’ with similar lips to me than ‘Moroccans’, and the same effect holds if you classify me as ‘North African’, and the same effect holds if you classify me as ‘African’. This is true for all of us.
There is no way to define racial groups in biology. It is the premise of the AAPA, American Association of Physical Anthropologists, that “Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.”
But it also is ‘scientifically’ significant – at least, with respect to social science and the science of psychology.
For example, science shows that the perception of race comes from the association of race and family (I do have my mother’s hair and father’s hayfever, after all!), and a confirmation bias: if you feel someone is part African, you’ll find a trait that ‘confirms’ this for you.
One’s experiences of race can also impact their mental wellbeing: studies have shown that racism can severely impact mental health, and even racial microaggressions (usually smaller and unintentional) have shown to be highly damaging, especially when repeated and unaddressed. They can lead to social isolation, low self-esteem, and social anxiety.
It is clear that, even if we don’t want it to, what society perceives our race to be has a massive influence on our social experiences. Race does matter: it inevitably informs how others see us and how we see ourselves. As a result, I encourage students, despite some of the issues discussed, to share their ethnicity with the university: this bolsters the aims of the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Team, and adds to the voices of those in a minority.
Problems can only be solved by understanding them: students being vocal about their identities discourages the pernicious colour blindness proposed by people with a lack of appreciation of the problem, and forces well-meaning, but flawed, institutions to search for the causes behind the associations discussed here.
The ethnicity I end up selecting for my student record is “Mixed – White and Black African”. Although I am ‘white passing’, I hope that, by discussing with others what ethnicity means for me and why I believe we should amplify non-white voices, we can create ripples of positive change.

PhD student in Human Factors Engineering, the psychology behind how we interact with technology and the environment.

General Director of community science hub, The Science Room, where questions lead a creative conversation.

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